Studies carried out on mice reveal that a male parent's eating habits could change the metabolism of his unborn child.
Importantly, the findings - which were published in the journal Cell - reveal that social influence is not a factor.
Despite not knowing exactly how the mechanism works, scientists believe that a type of nutritional signal must be carried through the sperm, helping to shape early development.
The research seems to give backing to the theory that environmental factors can trigger genetic effects that are passed down through generations.
Evidence for "epigenetic" influence has already been seen in a number of animal and human studies.
The most striking human research from Sweden suggested that a grandfather's poor diet increased the risk of diabetes, obesity and heart disease in second-generation children.
But in these studies it was impossible to be sure the effects were not caused by social and economic influences.
In the new research, scientists focused on the activity of genes in mice whose fathers were fed a low-protein diet as they were growing up.
They found that hundreds of genes were altered in offspring sired by the protein-starved males.
Copyright © Press Association 2010
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